It turned into a breath-taking 10-minute rant. Olivia was going nuts about our mutual acquaintance for blogging about the expensive, obsessive process of planning her wedding, and it had turned my usually mild-mannered friend into a ranting lunatic.
“It’s just so gross,” Olivia said. “Do I really need to know why she chose paper stock for letter-pressed Save-the-Date cards? And why does she have to link to every single freaking product she buys? I mean, I get it — she’s spending a lot of money — lucky her.”
She kept going. “And you know what’s worse? Her Facebook. All those pictures of her ring. Yes, she scored a diamond the size of a postage stamp. Good for her. Now please go bury yourself under a rock,” Olivia huffed. “When I got married, I wasn’t such a show-off. I made one announcement on Facebook, and I certainly didn’t devote a whole album to my ring.”
Tirade over, Olivia downed the last of her drink, as if to refuel for the next onslaught of insults. I thought it was a simple case of toxic Facebook friends, so I asked, “If it bugs you so much, why don’t you stop reading her blog and Facebook?”
“I just can’t,” she said, shaking her head. “It’s too fun to hate on it.” And that’s when it hit me: Olivia was knee-deep in the peculiarly addicting, yet toxic aftereffects, of some serious hate-reading.
When we read for leisure, we choose material to bring us enjoyment. But in hate-reading, we subject ourselves to ideas and people we despise. Your bile begins to rise, indignation starts to flare up and anger stews to a boil, but you can’t stop — you don’t want to stop. Like driving past a pileup on the highway, you know you should keep moving, and yet, you just can’t pull yourself away.
Ever read an article, comment or post simply to indulge a hatred of something? That’s hate-reading. Whereas trolling aims to spark a reaction in someone else, we hate-read to ignite a response in ourselves.
The origins of the term “hate-reading” are unknown, but in 2012, Katie Baker dissected her passion and addiction for it. “When I finally walk away from my computer, I feel like I’ve just binged on a butter-sogged bag of popcorn before the movie even started.” she wrote on feminist pop culture site Jezebel. “I’m slightly nauseated, but still can’t help licking my fingers for more fatty flavor.”
It seems anything is fodder for hate-reading. In a comprehensive, yet unscientific, canvassing of my Facebook friends, I found favorite hate-reading topics spanned everything from “right-wing nutjobs,” Gwyneth Paltrow and her lifestyle site Goop and Mormon housewives, to “anything to do with Anne Hathaway, A-Rod or Tim Tebow,” “food bloggers that have nothing to do but perfect their macaroon-making skills” and “Facebook itself because every time I go on here, it makes me hate humanity just a little more.”
Hate, of course, goes beyond the act of reading. Friends, for example, admitted to hate-watching TV shows like “any of the ‘Real Housewives’, even though [they] can’t stand those people.” Meanwhile, another revealed that she hate-followed Taylor Swift on Twitter and Instagram.
To indulge our hate-reading ire, we often turn to the Internet, where technology and social media have sparked a demand for free, continuous content. Hate-read material is personalized to each taste and quirk and easily accessible to everyone, at any time. And nearly everyone who does it copped to not being able to stop once they started.
The term “hate-reading” is new, but the behavior is anything but. The Bible warned against taking delight in the miseries of others: “Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth,” according to Proverbs 24:17-18. Greek philosopher Aristotle, meanwhile, explored the feelings of “epikhairekakia,” or taking pleasure in another’s misfortune, in his book “Nicomachean Ethics.” And the Germans even coined a term for feeling happiness and joy at the ills and idiocy of others: “schadenfreude,” which literally translates to “damage-joy” or “fail-joy.”
Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer famously explored the idea of schadenfreude, calling it the worst sin of human feeling. “To feel envy is human,” he wrote in his book, “On Human Nature.” “To savor schadenfreude is devilish.” While hate-reading may be devilish in the long run, savoring the fire of anger, indignation and annoyance can sure feel great as you do it.
Clinical psychologist Leslie Posen believes hate-reading is a form of “self-directed schadenfreude,” a masochistic delight we do to cause misery in ourselves. “The Internet and technology isn’t necessarily bringing out new behavior we haven’t seen before. These are variations,” she told The Age. “This just takes us into areas we’ve not seen before. Tech allows us to shine a light on it, and the Internet provides us with a safe viewing area where we can be protected in our curiosity.”
Negative emotions, like hatred and irritation, often feel pleasurable as we hate-read, at least to the brain. According to the National Institute of Health, in a study conducted at University College of London, neuroscientists found that hatred, not surprisingly, activated regions of the brain associated with aggression. But it also affected the putamen and insula — areas closely related to passionate, romantic love. Neurologically speaking, hate isn’t so different from love. Often, we love to hate, and hate-reading, however negative it could be, stokes the fires of our passions.
Hatred can make us smarter, too — or, at least, better strategists. According to the British study, the emotion also activated regions of the brain that deal with logic, prediction and planning. Hatred, it seems, helps us more clearly “read” our enemies to predict their course of action and then better plan a counter-attack — or offensive.
Of course, there is more to hate-reading than just hatred. Olivia, for example, didn’t really hate our wedding-happy friend. And after a few cocktails, she admitted it was a result of old-fashioned resentment and jealousy. Complex family dynamics and the vagaries of an uncertain economic climate and job outlook marred her own wedding, so she envied our friend’s enjoyment of the process.
The emotional basis of hate-reading, therefore, is more benign, yet complex: it often reflects a displaced longing for accomplishments, lifestyles or attributes we wish we had but are seemingly out of our reach. That gap between what we want and what we have — and the inadequacy to bridge it — can literally be painful to contemplate.
According to the NIH, in 2009, Japanese neuroscientists discovered the part of the brain that controlled our sense of jealousy is the same region that detected physical pain. The more participants became jealous, the more they showed brain activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex — an area involved in processing pain.
“It’s interesting the part of the brain which detects physical pain is also associated with mental pain,” lead researcher Hidehiko Takahashi wrote in the study. But there is a palpable relationship between envy and schadenfreude in the brain, as well. According to Takahashi, the more envy we experience, the more pleasure we feel when the person of our envy falls from grace.
At their heart, envy, jealousy and resentment — and the pleasure we feel when the objects of our envy fall from grace — are all similar because they have the sin of comparison. And instead of tackling the problem head-on, it’s often easier to indulge in envy and jealousy and take an almost-primal pleasure when others fall, act stupid or write something wincingly.
Ironically, it’s often more taboo to openly-discuss envy, jealousy and resentment than hatred. Nobody likes to admit they feel jealous. “Envy, the ‘unmentionable’ emotion, is perhaps one of the most pervasive and powerful of all the disruptive emotions that affect our corporate environments,” Bruna Martinuzzi wrote in her book, “The Leader as a Mensch.”
We’re often counseled to stop indulging in those toxic emotions and to just be happy with ourselves and our lives, but the reality is, much of our sense of identity and self-worth — as well as our place in the world and where we should be in life — is derived by comparing ourselves with others. In fact, in 1954, social psychologist Leon Festinger proposed a whole branch of psychology, called social comparison theory, to explain the methods we use to compare ourselves to peers to self-evaluate our opinions, ideas and attributes.
By comparing ourselves with others in a supposedly healthy way, Festinger believed we learn how to define ourselves. But psychologists, of course, differ on various points within the theory. Some believe we seek similar people to compare ourselves with. Meanwhile, others think we look at dissimilar lives to feel better about our own. Regardless, the larger point is that we, human beings, don’t exist in a vacuum, but in proximity to others — and our points of difference and similarity help us, for better or worse, take measure of our own lives.
Social comparison theory explains, in part, why we’re easily caught up in some forms of the Internet. Media plays a large role in helping us compare ourselves to others, and the Web is rife with opportunities to see how our friends live, play and work — though self-selected posts and photos are often skewed and self-selected.
But we’re not very good at evaluating that evidence. According to a Stanford study, researchers found that participants consistently underestimated the unhappiness of others, and that skewed perception fueled our own sense of dissatisfaction in ourselves. In other words, we overestimate the happiness of friends, and underestimate their unhappiness — and social media seems to make that tendency worse, much to our emotional detriment.
Designed to promote a selective, bullet-pointed picture of happiness, social media also affects our ability to evaluate realities, and in some ways, ourselves. Olivia likely overestimated the happiness of our wedding-planning friend, and as a result, she felt even worse that she should have.
Hate-reading is an outgrowth of natural tendencies to compare ourselves to our friends to gauge how far we need to go, and the flames of annoyance give us a temporary sense of superiority to ease the all-too-human pain of envy. But often, shared hatred is the way we bond, too. “It’s one of the strongest forms of bonding — bonding through hate,” Montana Miller, a professor of culture at Bowling Green State, told Cosmopolitan.
Too much hate-reading, though, ultimately feeds the feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing. At the core, social comparison is a lot like eating movie popcorn: just enough is a treat, but too much makes you sick. And after a while, hate-reading isn’t just a vent for unhealthy feelings, but also becomes a fuel for them.
Instead, experts say we can use difficult emotions — like envy, jealousy, resentment, anger and yes, even hatred — to pinpoint directions to explore and resolve so we can grow. Every emotion, no matter how negative or difficult, offers insight to whether our needs and wants are met — and if not, where we can better direct our efforts to fulfill them.
Olivia’s hate-reading, for example, helped her realize she resented the outside influence on her own wedding — and she and her husband needed to set better boundaries with their parents and in-laws.
If you grumble about Paltrow’s sanctimonious eating habits, take a closer look at your own health. And if you flare up in indignation at the comments section of favorite, most-hated political blogs, those topics may pinpoint here you could volunteer and become an activist in your community.
It’s all too human to feel envy, irritation and ire, but if you parlay that negative emotion into something constructive and illuminating, hate-reading may help propel you into a more positive direction. ♦